I used to be a total Grinch about Christmas. The commercialism, the greed, the insistence on buying stuff, the stress of being required to buy gifts for people regardless of whether you wanted to, and regardless of whether they’d even like them…all of it overpowered the quieter, enjoyable aspects of the holiday for me. The entire month of December was a lost cause as far as I was concerned.
Then I moved to Portugal, and fell in love with Christmas again. While Portuguese retailers certainly make the most of the holiday, the relentless commercialism just doesn’t exist here. The malls aren’t putting up Christmas decorations the day after Halloween. The mailbox isn’t stuffed full of Christmas catalogs, beg letters from charities, and ads announcing HUGE SALE at the same stores that had huge sales the previous week. Christmas, or Natal in Portuguese, is a family holiday much more than a Buy Buy Buy holiday.
The kicker for me, the thing that really made me fall back in love, was the amazing nightly street show of lights. I was used to small-town America street decorations that were anemic and unvarying, bought by the city hall twenty-five years ago and used every year since. Individual homeowners often had blazing light displays (something I don’t see here), but the civic displays were fairly uninspiring.
Not here! My little town of 20,000 people put up a light display that would have absolutely shamed my old home city of 150,000. It covered the two main streets for several blocks in both directions, the two pedestrian shopping streets, the street by the castle, the plaza in front of the old church, the fountain at the center of town — and it was all different. Every way you turned, the designs were different. Here’s how it looked north of the fountain:
And if you turned to look west, you saw this:
South and east each had their own designs, too. I loved it, and would go for freezing cold walks at night just to enjoy the lights.
For the first several years I lived here, I got excited upon seeing the street crews putting up the lights, and waited anxiously for the town hall to flip the switch. It turned our town into a fairyland, and ours was not the only one. All towns put up lights, even the teeny tiny ones. Lisboa was spectacular, of course. And since the Natal season doesn’t end until January 6, those lights made the coldest and darkest month of the year a time of joy for me. Best of all, every year they were redesigned, so every year it was all brand new.
But then came the Great Recession, or the “euro crisis” as it’s usually called, and life in Portugal has not been the same since. I see it every day, in so many ways — the businesses closing left and right, the students who can’t come to class anymore, our own income being slashed year after year while the cost of everything rises — but for me, the most visually obvious and demoralizing effect has been on the fairy lights of Natal.
In 2011, they were smaller and sparser, without the flashing and twinkling of the fancy designs. In 2012, they were smaller yet, and only covered a few intersections, the church plaza, and the pedestrian street.
This year they’re gone. Well, not totally — there are a few stragglers on the pedestrian street, and a couple of wire-frame Christmas trees on the church plaza. Somehow, the pathetic remains look even sadder than if there were no lights at all. It’s like going to a New Year’s Eve firework display and watching them shoot off exactly two Roman candles. What’s the point?
Faro, the largest city in the Algarve, has no lights. I haven’t driven around to see how the other towns are doing, but Loulé is one of the wealthiest in the region, and if we don’t have them, I’m guessing nobody else does, either.
My wife says, “Well, if it was lights or someone not getting laid off from their job, I’d vote for the job,” and of course I would agree with that. (Unless the job in question was that of any politician in the national government, in which case, can we please sack them now and put the money to far better use?) But what about the people who design and make these lights, all over the country? What has happened to their jobs?
Watching the Portuguese suffer so dreadfully under three years of austerity has been bad enough, but somehow, seeing the dark streets of what used to be a fairyland feels like the most demoralizing blow of all. It’s another Austerity Christmas, and there’s no reason to walk at night.